What is the proper role of government?

Former Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff publicly lied by saying that she had a M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economics. The lie was discovered in 2009, when she still wasn’t Brazil’s president. Maybe that’s the problem with Dilma: she would even lie to say she was highly competent in economics.

Nobody in the 19th century believed that the role of government was to control the economy. This notion only became strong in the 20th century and to a great degree thanks to Keynesianism. It was Keynes who popularized the notion that the free market is inherently unstable, and that government should exercise some oversight on it.

Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian presidential candidate ahead in the opinion polls, has no problem admitting he doesn’t know enough about economics. For me, this is one of his main strengths. In the past, Bolsonaro was more statist. Today he shows signs of becoming more inclined towards free markets. He is clearly willing to delegate the economic policy of his government to people who are strongly favorable to the free market. In other words, Bolsonaro doesn’t know a lot about economics and he is not ashamed of admitting it. But he knows that too much government control ruins a country’s economy.

Dilma is arrogant. Part of her arrogance is to believe that she would be able to control the economy politically. Bolsonaro seems to be humble enough to admit that’s impossible. Keynes believed that the economy is inherently unstable. Contradictorily he advised governments to try to control it. Hayek’s answer to Keynes was that economics is not a science you can master in college. There are simply way too many variables for any human to control.

Bolsonaro’s focus is on public security. Criminality is on the rise in Brazil. People are afraid of walking on the streets, especially in big cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. That should be the role of government: to guarantee we can go out for work, come back, and not get killed or robbed on the way. If the government is doing that, it is already doing a lot. People freely and willingly interacting with one another can do the rest. Guarantee that evildoers will be punished, and watch the economy fly. And before I forget: contrary to cultural Marxism (and Rousseau), criminals are not victims of the society. Society is the victim of criminals.

Cities in capitalism are more beautiful

The other day I wrote about some of the reasons why I love capitalism. One of them is that cities in capitalism are more beautiful. I am convinced of this when I think about some cities I am more familiar with, including their geography and history.

Most foreigners I know have difficulty to answering correctly, when asked, “What is Brazil’s national capital?”. Most people answer Rio de Janeiro, but it is actually Brasilia. Many people say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but I am very inclined to say that this is not so. I am still not 100% sure about this, but I believe that there is something objective about beauty. Maybe it is not something so strict, like a point. Maybe it is something broader, like an area. But still, I am inclined to say that there is something objective about it. At least for me, Brasilia is one of the ugliest cities conceivable. I am really glad to say that. Its architecture was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa. Growing up in Brazil, questioning that Niemeyer was a genius is almost anathema, almost like saying that Maradona was better than Pelé or that Ayrton Senna was not the best Formula One pilot ever. Because of that, I was always happy to say that Niemeyer’s buildings are among the ugliest things on the surface of this planet. It was like shouting that the king is naked.

Brasilia is very beautiful from the sky. Its shape resembles an airplane or a cross. But that is the problem: the city is beautiful from heaven, but not for the people walking in it. It was made for God to see from up there. But, as Niemeyer was a convinced atheist, I am not sure who is watching his creation. My guess is that Niemeyer thought that he was a god. A very mean god, who didn’t care about people having to spend lots of time in cars driving long distances.

Niemeyer was also related, with Lucio Costa, to Barra da Tijuca, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where I spent lots of time growing up. Lucio Costa, as far as I’m concerned, was not a communist. I believe he was closely connected to the Brazilian version of positivism. Because positivism and communism are basically the same, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Barra da Tijuca is very similar to Brasilia: very beautiful if looked at from the sky, but very unpleasant for the pedestrian. Very long distances to walk. Cars are mandatory.

The most pleasant neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro are the result of spontaneous order. As Hayek noticed, spontaneous order is one of the central features of capitalism. People usually contrasted between planned economies (such as the USSR) and unplanned economies (such as the US in some moment of its history). But Hayek observed that all economies are planned. Some are centrally planned. Others are planned by several individuals who are not following a specific central plan.

I am convinced that cities that follow no plan, or a very simple plan, are more beautiful than cities that follow a very specific central plan. New York, as far as I know, followed a simple plan, a grid. But other than that, there was a lot of freedom in the use of the space for much of its history. It’s a city that I just love. I am more comfortable talking about Rio de Janeiro. It is a city that was at its best before modern architecture, positivism, socialism, Developmentalism, and other isms. It was better when Brazil had a little more classical liberalism.

Some reasons why I love capitalism

Here is a list of things I love about capitalism. Before presenting the list, it is important to say what I mean about capitalism. By capitalism, I mean free market capitalism. I don’t mean oligarchic capitalism (as it is very common in Latin America), state capitalism (communist countries) or Crony capitalism (sadly, more and more prevalent in the US). What I mean by capitalism is a system consistent with personal choice, private property, and voluntary exchange. The system Adam Smith described in Wealth of Nations. With that in mind, here is the list:

capitalism is true to human nature;

capitalism (slowly but surely) produces (immense amounts of) wealth;

capitalism is (more or less) stable;

capitalism helps the ones who need the most;

capitalism allows us to help others in need;

capitalism reduces violence;

capitalism reduces the incidence of wars;

capitalism breeds cosmopolitanism;

capitalism makes a better use of natural resources;

capitalism produces more beautiful cities;

capitalism is consistent with the Bible.

Christianism and Liberalism

In 1929 John Gresham Machen dropped his professorship at Princeton Theological Seminary to establish Westminster Theological Seminary. Machen fought the Theological Liberalism in the seminary and in his denomination (PCUSA) for many years, until he gave up and decided to form a new seminary and eventually a new denomination as well (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church).

Machen’s attitude of abandoning his seminary and his denomination might seem harsh. After all, can’t we all just get along? Theologically he was considered a fundamentalist. His followers are called to this day “Machen’s Warrior Children,” people who are theologically unwilling to compromise.

People have all the right to disagree, but for Machen, some things were not negotiable. That is why he wrote Christianity and Liberalism (1923), a book in which he unapologetically calls Theological Liberalism “another religion,” separated from historical Christianism.

Interestingly, the same Machen who so fiercely opposed theological liberalism was not a conservative regarding politics, because he was suspicious of mixing religion and politics. He found attempts to establish a Christian culture by political means insensitive to minorities. In practical terms, he opposed school prayer and Bible reading in public school. He also opposed Prohibition, something very costly considering that at that time abstinence was common ground among Protestants. In sum, Machen was, politically, a libertarian.

In Road to Serfdom, Hayek observes that Liberal Christians, who don’t believe in the supernatural aspects of the Bible, tend to embrace Social Gospel and tear down the wall of separation between church and state. Machen, on the other hand, was a living proof that a fundamentalist Christian can want nothing but a distance from the government.

What is Cultural Marxism, anyway?

I remember many years ago when Sarah Palin was in the spotlight and she accused Obama of socialism. Back then, I thought this was nonsense and I couldn’t see why conservatives in the US hated Obama so much. However, coming from my academic and cultural background I should know better.

This year we have presidential elections in Brazil. After many years we have presidential candidates who unapologetically call themselves right-wing. Until not many years ago, people in Brazil were simply ashamed of describing themselves in this way. Maybe it has to do with the military dictatorship Brazil was under from 1964 to 1985. Back then, to be “right-wing” was to be in favor of the dictatorship. To be left-wing was to oppose it. The armed forces took power in Brazil to avoid the communists of doing so. I am every day more convinced that this backfired. Because they were fought by the military, communists posed as victims who were simply fighting for democracy. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth: they were terrorists who wanted to transform Brazil into a South American USSR. But the communists-as-democrats is the narrative I and many Brazilians learned in school.

Brazil has a long history of communist influence. Since the 1920s the USSR tried to influence politics in my country, including a failed coup in the 1930s, the Brazilian uprising of 1935. However, communists eventually learned that Brazilians were socially too conservative to accept communist rule. That’s about when they discovered cultural Marxism, especially Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Brazil’s strongest socialist party, the Worker’s Party (PT) is much more influenced by Gramsci than by Lenin or even Marx. Marx is more like a shadow, a mythical figure that very few people actually read.

Cultural Marxism is not a well defined academic paradigm. It is a political program. For some years the main leaders of PT were not even secretive about this. They accepted in their economic policy many of the basics of the Washington Consensus. In their cultural agenda, however, they took in anything that would help overturn conservative values (I mean here Judeo-Christian). But even here, they would not fight it openly. Jesus was not entirely overthrown. Instead, he turned into a revolutionary, a 1st century Che Guevara,  by Liberation Theology. In the political program of winning culture, any help is welcome. That’s how Foucault, Derrida, the Frankfurt School, anything that questions modern liberal capitalist society, is used to question “everything that is.”

Cultural Marxism, in sum, is nihilism. They don’t really have anything to substitute the culture they want to overturn. That is why it sounds so abstract. Academically, that’s exactly what it is. Politically, however, it serves a very specific purpose: power.

Cultural marxism and the Overton window

According to all accounts, Karl Marx was not an easy person. Basically, he had the habit of making the life of all around him miserable. However, as Joseph Schumpeter (himself far from being a Marxist) loved to point out, he was extremely well read. This allowed him to build a complex economic theory focused on factory workers, without ever (or almost ever, at least) stepping into a factory. Life for a factory worker in 19th century Britain was not easy, and Marx was very able in pointing that out. His economic theory, however, was a complete failure, as Ludwig von Mises aptly pointed out.

Marxism should have died in the mid-20th century when it became clear that all socialist countries are poor and oppressive. However, it survived as cultural Marxism. People like Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and everybody in the Frankfurt School were not interested in economics. Instead, they wanted to study culture. The oppressed were not the factory workers anymore, but the social minorities. Libertarians and Conservatives should sympathize with that. It is true that women, non-whites, and homosexuals suffered a great deal in the masculine, white, heterosexual West. To point out that they suffer even more outside the West is not particularly helpful. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, as with much of original Marxism, cultural Marxism is only good at pointing the problems, not at offering solutions. Modern civilization, as Sigmund Freud very well observed, is full of discontents. This is an old argument. Rousseau points out how modern civilization is cruel. Voltaire answers that, as cruel as it might be, it is still better than the alternative.

Our problem today is that cultural Marxism was successful in pushing the Overton window in their favor. That was precisely Gramsci’s objective: to fight “bourgeois” cultural hegemony with Marxist cultural hegemony. To a great degree, he succeeded. We need to fight the cultural war. As much as modern life can be bittersweet, I still haven’t heard a better alternative. Besides, as a Christian, I have to say with Saint Augustine that men have a “God-shaped hole” that no civilization – Modern, pre-modern or postmodern – can fill. But still, I enjoy the things that capitalism, capitalism that originated from the Protestant ethic, has to offer.

“How could Nixon have won? Nobody I know voted for him”

It’s always nice, now and then, to remind people in the press and in academia of Pauline Kael’s famous (or infamous) quote referring to George McGovern’s loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. Apparently, it is a misquote, but I don’t think that it matters all that much.

The fact is that too many people in the press and in academia live in a leftist cultural bubble. This bubble made many people blind to Trump’s favoritism in the last US presidential election. The same bubble is happening in Brazil now, where journalists and political analysts are disconcerted by Jair Bolsonaro’s favoritism in the October elections.

The fact is that people in different social circles have different Overton windows. Created by Joseph P. Overton, the Overton window, or the window of discourse, describes the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse. But by “public” many people consider only their close social circle. People grow up in specific neighborhoods, go to specific universities, work in specific places, and are never or rarely exposed to different thoughts. And this is not entirely accidental. Cultural Marxism (Gramsci and Frankfurt School) want to create a cultural hegemony of the left, making sure that alternative discourse is thrown out of the acceptable range of ideas.

The result is a lot of Pauline Kaels.